Music and my Scientist Dad

Writing on Father’s Daysome memories of my late dad’s influence on my musical education: 

My dad was a research scientist who worked on developing a battery for a prototype electric car in the 1960s and 70s. It was shown on TV on ‘Tomorrow’s World’. He was meant to drive it on to the set but dropped out at the last minute because he was too shy. We all sat round the TV and were so disappointed when someone else drove on instead, especially as I’d told all my friends to watch. He later told us he had been worried that the car might stall and the thought of the impending embarrassment had held him back. He asked one of his colleagues to take his place. I know that feeling – should I attempt the solo part I have been offered or ask someone else play it?

My dad, a scientist; my mum, a dancer/teacher: I’ve always credited my mum for encouraging my love of music and wrote about it here (Thank you for the Music, Mum) but I came to know and love many of the classics because of my dad. He listened to the BBC ‘third programme’ which played music by the ‘great’ composers: overtures, concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn (amongst others) every day. Orchestral sounds, dramatic rhythms and (what soon became) well-known melodies drifted around the house. He not only listened on his home-made valve wireless but also had music playing in the car. He gave me a lift every school day, car radio turned up and when I heard something I really liked, I was in danger of making myself late by staying to listen to the end. I first heard Brahms’ second piano concerto in the car. I was stunned by the beauty of the cello solo melody that opens the second movement and recurs throughout. I’d never heard of a cello solo in a piano concerto before. I really didn’t want to get out of the car that morning. Next birthday, my dad gave me a double LP of both Brahms piano concertos and I listened over and over to that movement.

Listening to it now, I find it such a sad, nostalgic sounding melody, I wonder at my teenage self sometimes!

Symphonies and piano concertos were one thing but there was another type of music where my dad’s enthusiasm left me cold. That was opera. I was never a fan. It didn’t help that the first one he took me to as a young teenager was La Belle Hélène by Offenbach. I didn’t like the warbly voices, couldn’t make out the lyrics and couldn’t follow the plot. Worst of all, confirming my annoyance at being there, the leading lady began to strip off revealing her corset and bloomers! I was mortified and excruciatingly embarrassed. The whole experience put me off opera for years. When I was clearing out my dad’s house, what did I find in the attic? An LP of La Belle Hélène with the leading lady there on the front in her corset! My dread came flooding back!

Cellists? Do you ever wish you played the flute?

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Whenever I tell anyone that I play the cello they tend to say something like:

“I love the cello, it’s such beautiful instrument.” 

Then I remember how lucky I am.  To play the cello is to love the cello. What I really mean is: you have to love the cello to play it. Is that because of its soulful sound, its potential to express deep emotion? No. It’s because it’s really annoying to carry! And if you do play the cello you will certainly be asked many times over:

“Do you ever wish you played the flute?”

I never thought about whether I loved the cello or not when I began to play. Just before I started secondary school, my mum took out a cello from the back of her wardrobe. I’d never seen it before, even though I’d used that wardrobe many times to play ‘hide and seek’. She said I could learn to play it when I went to my new school. On my first day, the music teacher asked us to write down if we would like to play an instrument and if so what, I wrote down “Yes. Cello.”

But I didn’t really ‘get into’ the cello until I was a teenager and I joined a local youth orchestra. Even though rehearsals were on Saturday mornings – I loved it! I got up early and took two buses, changing at Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. The worst thing was, there was really only one seat where I could sit easily with a cello: the first one that has a wider space (designated nowadays as a priority seat). It was usually empty at that time on a Saturday morning but if someone was there, in that seat, I would have to go to the back and risk getting flung across the bus when it went round a corner, hanging on to that cello in its cloth case and terrified that it would get broken.

After rehearsals, seeing as I was in town, I liked to go window-shopping, to a record shop called Rare Records and to Gibbs, a second-hand book shop or go and browse in the music library at St Peter’s Square, except that I had that cello to carry around with me. It was a real nuisance. 

Quite often, I’d get a lift from my mum especially to concerts. One time she had to hire a car as ours had broken down. It was bigger than ours and amazingly the cello fitted into the boot. But when we arrived at the pre-concert rehearsal Mum couldn’t get the boot open. The key didn’t seem to work. She even went to the police to ask if they could get it open for us! But they said these cars have a separate key to open the boot, to make them difficult to break into. We didn’t have another key and there wasn’t time to get one so I had to watch the concert from the audience and not play. Everyone asked me why I wasn’t playing. I was so embarrassed!

Not as embarrassed as I was when I had to go to a different room from usual, for my  cello lessons at school. I had to walk through a classroom full of boys. It was the most excruciating experience, not least because I was shy and skinny, in a frumpy uniform – box-pleated navy skirt and knee length grey socks. I could feel them all watching me and sniggering. It was a few months before lessons resumed in the usual room, to my relief. I couldn’t have done that much longer!

There were many things that could have put me off playing the cello but overriding them all, was the thrill I got from playing the cello in the youth orchestra. We played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth. I didn’t always understand the notation but learnt to copy the other players. I was in awe of the first clarinettist and first oboe-player playing their impressive solos but was glad I belonged in the security of the cello section and loved being part of the full-orchestra sound with strings, woodwind, brass and percussion in full force.

I’d go home and tell Mum all about it, singing the cello part! And she’d say, “that doesn’t sound like the tune, what does the tune go like?” I had concentrated so hard on learning the cello part, I thought that was the tune!

A turning point came when on one of my trips to Rare Records I bought an LP of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a famous recording by Jacqueline du Pré. I listened to it over and over and fell in love with it … its dramatic opening, soul searching phrases and soaring melodies. “So that’s what a cello’s meant to sound like!” Years later, studying for my degree, when my teacher suggested I learn the Elgar for my performance exam, I was so excited, I rushed off up town, straight away, to buy the music. And as I swept my bow across those opening chords, I was in my element. Nothing was ever going to put me off playing the cello! Do I wish I played the flute? Not in a million years!

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A Cure for Homesickness

Over the past decade, my musical studies have taken me on a virtual world tour. I have enjoyed learning to play Indonesian gamelan, Indian sitar and tabla, learning West African dance and playing in a Chinese orchestra but all of a sudden a strange thing has happened. Just lately during lockdown I have become homesick for England. Due to pandemic restrictions here where I live in Scotland, I haven’t been over the border for over a year. So what better cure than to let the music take me there? 

Join me on a virtual English journey:

The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth

Already, I can see the English countryside, I’m a child making daisy chains and paddling in streams on long summer days. That was George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, based on an English folk song. Butterworth was one of the composers, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, who collected and transcribed hundreds of folk songs in rural England before WW1. The influence on their own musical style is clear as day: their compositions evoke a kind of pastoral idyll. Sadly, Butterworth never made it back from the war, dying on the Somme in 1916 aged only 31, which makes this piece even more poignant.

From a different era now, let’s visit Shakespeare’s England.

Mal Sims by Giles Farnaby

I love this arrangement of the music of Giles Farnaby played by the Philip Jones brass ensemble, originally written for keyboard. Farnaby was a keyboard instrument maker by trade as well as a composer and I imagine him trying out his compositions in his workshop.

Now time for another tramp across the fields:

Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite arranged for string orchestra.

A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst was originally written for brass band but I think this string version is equally effective at conjuring up an English landscape. Holst, born in 1874 is most famous for The Planets written in 1913, a brilliant piece that sounds so modern it could have been composed yesterday.

Now another trip back in time to the 16th century to hear the music of John Dowland, a composer who excelled in the fashionable melancholic style of the era. This is an arrangement of The Earle of Essex Galiard – one of his more cheerful numbers.

From a century later, a song by Henry Purcell – a brilliant example of his use of a ground bass (a bass line which repeats itself throughout). To me this bass line is a melody in itself and the feeling of security it gives, allows the melody to flow. It’s so beautiful! No wonder Purcell is thought of as one of England’s greatest composers.

Travelling forward to the 20th century, let’s hear from a composer whose most famous piece is based on a theme by Purcell. It is of course Benjamin Britten, who is associated with the area of England where he spent much of his life: East Anglia. Its wild, coastal landscape inspired his operatic works: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. In this piece, his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I love the way he characterises each instrumental section – especially when it comes to the percussion – you can still hear the tune in your head when they play. When Britten was composing this in the post-war era, there was a resurgence of culture in the UK and a belief in its value in healing a nation: something we could do with again as we come out of this pandemic…

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten

I’ve mentioned my memories of the English countryside but I spent my childhood in a northern suburb of Manchester. In my teens, we moved to a town in Lancashire at the edge of the Pennine hills: the town of Haslingden which happens to be the birthplace of the composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here’s the opening theme of his music for the film The Cruel Sea about the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Whilst attempting to obey orders to attack one another, both sides realise the danger of their mission puts them at the mercy of the sea and by implication, the impossible demands of those in command. Dramatic and stirring …

As I come from northern England, of course I have to include brass band music: associated with the area from the time when mills and collieries started up their own bands. Industry may have gone but the bands continue. I’ve chosen the Brighouse and Rastrick band. I studied music in Huddersfield in west Yorkshire and one my fellow music students played in this band, in fact I think he still does. Here they are playing Cornet Carillon which reminds me of another quintessential English sound – the peeling of English church bells.

Let’s get back to our rural idyll with the music of Gerald Finzi. I first came across Finzi’s music when I was playing in a chamber orchestra at Huddersfield. We performed Dies Natalis with one of my talented fellow students singing the solo. I loved the string parts, the gorgeous harmonies and the plaintive melodies. Here’s another evocative piece by Finzi called Forlana, from his 5 Bagatelles.

Music from the great tradition of English choral music next. Herbert Howells’ hymns and psalm settings are a well-loved part of choral evensong repertoire. This is his Hymn to St Cecilia – the patron saint of music.

Herbert Howells: Hymn to St Cecilia

On with our journey, we’re almost there …

Seascape by Ruth Gipps

Music by Ruth Gipps, proving you don’t have to be a man to compose great music. Although at that time, it helped you to get recognition. Born in 1921, she was a professional oboist, conductor and a prolific composer. I am ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her until she was BBC radio 3 composer of the week recently.

If it hasn’t done it already, the music from now on is going to tug at your heart strings so turn the volume up and prepare to shed a tear. I can’t imagine hearing the following music without associating it with England but for me much of this music evokes a time not just a place, a time I can’t ever get back.

And although I sound English, I feel quite Scottish, having lived here for most of my adult life. I think of myself as a European and a citizen of the world rather than particularly English. 

This musical journey is about missing family, it’s about fond memories, of places I have spent happy times and of lost loved ones.

So to take us to the end of our tour, here are two pieces which indulge my nostalgia with an old-fashioned English melody: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

Do you have a piece of music that reminds you of home? I’d love to hear about it.

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